Camilo Maldonado lost his father to cancer when he was 7 years old. The financial result was devastating for his family. Experiencing financial strain growing up drove Maldonado to academic success: He graduated from Harvard University and then the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He and his twin brother Francisco created the personal finance blog The Finance Twins, to help others understand money. We spoke with him about recovering financially after losing a parent and the biggest money mistake he sees others make.
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This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
What financial advice do you have for those who have lost a parent?
If you’ve recently lost a parent and have to deal with their medical bills, the first thing you have to understand is that you [typically] can't inherit their debt. So if a bill collector shows up asking you to pay a deceased parent’s bills, make sure you sit down with an expert and seek advice before paying a penny. The deceased person’s estate will likely be liable.
What steps have you taken to protect your family in case something happens?
Now that I am a parent, I’ve done a few things so my children won't be in a dire position if I die unexpectedly. The most important thing is making sure I have a life insurance policy. The money from my term life insurance policy will be enough to cover potential medical bills and still leave some money for my family so that they can move forward. I’ve also prioritized saving for retirement so that my children won't need to support me financially when I am no longer able to work.
Losing a parent or spouse is devastating, and the last thing I want is for them to suffer even more. I have first-hand experience with that, which is why I am so passionate about it.
What life lessons did you learn from childhood?
There are so many lessons that I learned and still carry with me. The ones that come to mind are being resourceful, resilient and grateful. As a result of not having the same advantages as many of my peers, I had to be extremely resourceful to excel in school.
On the resiliency front, I never gave up on myself. As a Latino raised in a predominantly white community, I suffered my fair share of racism and other events that could have easily demoralized me. Life gives us all different challenges and hurdles to overcome, and if you can find a way to be resilient and push through the pain and doubts, you can achieve much more than you ever thought was possible. I am a prime example of that.
Finally, gratitude is a beautiful feeling that can lift you up when you are feeling down. Not having a lot as a child has meant that I am incredibly grateful for all of the opportunities and things that I have now. I don't take anything for granted and I think it has allowed me to remain positive during difficult times and to keep moving forward.
How did your childhood change your approach to money?
My approach to money is always evolving. When I graduated from college and started working, I went from being poor my entire life to making six figures in my first year. At first, I was extremely frugal and afraid of spending money because I was afraid of running out. This mindset isn't very healthy because it can actually prevent you from seeking and taking advantage of new opportunities. It also made me afraid to invest and it was something that I didn’t do for the first few years of my career.
Now that I have a healthier relationship with money, I focus on spending more on experiences. Buying physical products can only bring us temporary happiness, but making amazing memories with our loved ones will last a lifetime. For that reason, my wife and I always make sure that we include traveling in our budget at the expense of driving nicer cars or wearing nicer clothes. I've been extremely fortunate, so I honestly don't feel like I've had to really sacrifice anything, and it makes it easier to feel that way when you are grateful for the things you already have.
What’s the biggest money mistake you see others make?
Most people seem to spend their money just as quickly as they make it. They view money as a way for them to buy the things that they want. From an early age, I understood that money was a tool that I could use to provide security for myself and my loved ones, and to buy myself the freedom to spend my time as I saw fit.
What are your current financial goals & how are you working toward them?
Far and away, my number one money goal is to be financially independent. That means getting to the point where I no longer work for money. That means investing a large portion of my earnings and running multiple businesses to accelerate my ability to reach my goals.
What's something you're financially proud of?
I am so incredibly proud of myself for taking the time to learn about personal finance and financial literacy. My mom was never able to teach me any money skills, and I have no clue where I would be if I didn't take the time to do that. The reason I started The Finance Twins with my brother Francisco was to help others learn these skills too.
Do you have any financial regrets?
I don't have any major financial regrets that keep me up at night. I understand that we all make money mistakes, so I try not to beat myself up.
When I first graduated I didn't really understand what a 401(k) was so I didn't participate in the retirement plan at work. However, I didn't have anyone to explain it to me so I don't dwell on that. You live and you learn. Make sure you participate in your workplace retirement plan!
What's the best money you've spent?
Dinner and drinks for the first date with my wife! Building a life and family with her is easily the most important thing I have done or will do in my lifetime.
What's the best money you've saved?
The first would be graduating from college virtually debt-free from a combination of scholarships and financial aid. The second is stopping buying those expensive cartridge shaving razors 10 years ago — I’ve saved thousands of dollars and got a better shave using a safety razor. Highly recommended.
Next on the list would be cutting cable and relying on streaming services.
What's the worst financial advice you've ever received?
That you don't need to save for retirement because that's what Social Security is for. Yikes.
What's the best financial advice you've ever received?
To pay yourself first and invest 15% of your gross salary for retirement.
Image: Nastia Kobzarenko